Penman No. 189: Hearing the Mermaids Singing

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Penman for Monday, February 29, 2016

 

I GAVE my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature (English 42) a special treat the other week. Luckily for them, while moving things around the house, I came across a book that I’d picked up at a sidewalk sale in San Francisco several years ago—very probably one of the best bargain books I’d ever bought, at $6.99. It was a big, fat book titled Poetry Speaks, and it included 3 CDs containing nearly 150 poems by authors ranging from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot to Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Sylvia Plath.

Now, there are many such compilations of poetry you can find online, but what makes this collection unique is that most of the poems are read by the poets themselves—yes, including Tennyson, Whitman, and Eliot, from the earliest days of sound recording. I thought that by sharing the recordings with my students, I would give them a unique opportunity to hear not only some of the world’s greatest and best loved poems but also how their authors actually sounded.

And while—like the children we sire into this world—a poem is on its own once it’s published, subject to the reader’s interpretation, a poet reading his or her own work gives us a privileged insight into the poet’s mind and sensibility. We listen for the general tone, the pace, the emphasis the poet gives to certain words and turns of phrase, even the way he or she ends a line and segues to the next. These inflections personalize the poem, and turn it from lines on a page to a breath in the air.

Let’s not forget that poetry preceded writing, and that, in our ancient past, poetry was meant to be recited, not read. It performed both a ritual and an entertainment function. The old epics contained and transmitted the story of the race, and elevated everyday speech to something close to magical (all of Shakespeare’s plays, when you take a closer look, were written in iambic pentameter). Even in more modern times, some poets still wrote mainly to be heard. The book’s introduction quotes William Butler Yeats as saying that “I wanted all of my poetry to be spoken in a stage or sung…. I have spent my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for the ear alone.”

Sadly, poetry’s public aspect has diminished over the past century. Not only are today’s poems mainly meant for the printed page; their messages are also much more private, to the point of inscrutability. The study and appreciation of poetry has become an essentially academic exercise.

This disjunction between performance and privacy probably explains why poetry readings can become boring, with readers failing to connect with the audience, who can’t figure out what the poets are saying. It’s difficult enough to understand the poems on the page, and harder still to understand them while being mumbled.

I’ve often noted, with some dismay, how many of today’s readers of poetry bleed the life out of poems by mouthing the words with a mewling preciousness or otherwise in a mechanical march, without an understanding of the sense of the piece itself. Most poems are infused with vigor, with an attitude that the poet has taken toward the work and perhaps even its presentation to the world. Critics will argue with this proposition, but it stands to reason that no one should understand a poem better than the poet himself or herself.

Understanding and public presentation, however, are two different things, and not every poet can give their poems the intensity or the nuancing they deserve. That applies even to some poets in the CDs: forgivably, Tennyson sounds phlegmatic in his rendition of what should have been a rousing “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but he was already 80 when Thomas Edison recorded him in 1889.

By contrast, Robert Frost (reading “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and Sylvia Plath (reading “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”) sound resonantly clear and confident. T. S. Eliot reads all eight minutes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a thin, reedy voice—now totally British, a complete transformation of the former American born in Missouri who moved to England at 25—but somehow it’s what you expect of the man and the poem. I was in the bathroom as I listened to Eliot over the speakers at full volume, and found myself following along: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each…”

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And if you’d like to hear more such mermaids, I’d like to invite you to “Wordello,” a very special and unique literary reading hosted by the Likhaan Creative Writing Foundation to benefit writing scholarships and other worthwhile literary projects. The Likhaan Foundation has been the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s steadfast partner in many an undertaking, and we can’t endorse Wordello strongly enough.

Inspired by the Poetry Brothel in New York, Wordello will happen on Saturday, March 5, 2016 in Green Sun, 2285 Chino Roces Ave. Ext., Makati. Doors open at 5 PM. Tickets will be sold for P1,000 (students with IDs come in at half-price), which will cover the show, drinks, bar chow, and special presentations. I was told to expect “a rope bondage presentation, calligraphy writing on the back of a woman, tarot card readings”, and so on, which all sound positively intriguing, but before your imagination runs riot, let me assure the prayerful that the good ladies of the Likhaan Foundation are as convent-bred as they come, but thankfully with a wicked sense of humor.

The invited readers include Krip Yuson, Jing Hidalgo, Marne Kilates, Vim Nadera, RayVi Sunico, Neil Garcia, Ramil Digal-Gulle, Alma Anonas-Carpio, Peachy Paderna, Asha Macam, Danton Remoto, Juan Labella, Mii Marci, Franz Pantaleon, Eliza Victoria, Karen Kunawicz,
Claire Miranda, Monique Obligacion, Maxine Syjuco, Trix Syjuco, Cesare Syjuco, and myself.

For more information, please check out https://www.facebook.com/wordelloph/info?tab=page_info or contact Chichi Lizot at chichilizot@gmail.com.

See you all on March 5 at Wordello—let’s make the spoken word rock!

[Image from jubilee-centre.org]

 

 

 

 

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